Last updated on 5 August 2015
This talk was one of a series of 17 talks broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015 with assistance from a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.
My family has a long association with Phillip Island as my mother was brought here on holiday as a six year old by her parents in 1912. My family holidayed in Cowes after the war and we stayed at Yackatoon Guest House. My grandfather, James Joseph Blake, started the first of the famous New Year’s Eve Parades, and used to teach swimming on the Cowes beach. It was virtually ordained that I should come to live on Phillip Island as my family had such a passion for the place.
When I was 14 we went to stay at Erehwon Guest House, and there I met the owner’s son Bob Davie, when he offered me some bubblegum after a game of tennis. It was the start of our romance.
After I left school I went to University to do Physiotherapy. During the holidays I came to Phillip Island to work as a waitress at Erehwon.
We were married in 1956, the year of the Olympics in Melbourne. We were both just 21. I’d finished my degree and also finished my 12 months practicum. I think I was probably the first professional woman of any kind to live on Phillip Island. But the Phillip Island people didn’t even know what physiotherapy was. Women didn’t work, especially once they had got married, and especially not farmers’ wives. Our lives were taken up with family, cooking a big lunch every day, an evening meal, lots of home baking and helping with milking the cows and feeding the pigs. I went shopping once a week, or goods were brought out on the mail delivery. Nowadays I’m in Cowes sometimes three times a day!
Bob and I were dairy farming when we started out. Bob had worked at dairying with John Gardener of Ventnor, so knew a bit about it. But there was no family history of farming on either side of our families. We learnt a lot from other dairy farmers. The farming community was very strong, though there weren’t many opportunities for socialising. We had herd testing, and there were Better Farming Awards as well.
But there wasn’t much technical information about. We had a lot of swamp ti-tree and when we contacted the Department of Agriculture about it in the 1950s, they told us to plough it all in. We learnt later that that was the worst thing to do! That was long before the computer era – now there is so much information. But then farmers were very conservative about change. The current generation of farmers are much more innovative, which is really the only way to survive.
We had 80 acres at first, called “Bimbadeen”, which is Aboriginal for “Place of good View”. We were dairy farmers until 1968. We’d separate the cream which the Archie’s Creek Butter Factory truck collected, and we raised pigs on the milk. Eventually farms next door started selling up and the farmers moved into Cowes, so by 1975 we had 360 acres.
We decided to go into beef cattle in 1968 and started with Brangus, which are a cross between Brahmans and Angus. We found the best mix was 3/8th Brahman and 5/8th Angus. By 1980 we’d changed to just Angus, and that’s the breed we still have. Our product is branded “Gippsland Natural”. We have worked hard to make our property sustainable and our husbandry methods sensitive.
I did an Environmental Management System certificate that allowed us to reach the ISO 1400 compliant universal benchmark for being an environmentally sustainable farm. Our commercial brand is “Enviromeat” which is sold to selective restaurants in Melbourne. Everything now is monitored – water independence, solar use, padded yards and lots of methods used to reduce the stress to the cattle. Bob transports them himself. We take animal welfare seriously. Everything is computer recorded, included the genetics of each animal, the machinery records, solar usage on pumps and water conservation.
It takes less time to fatten our animals because they are genetically selected to be strong. They take 14 months only from calving to sale. Bob and our son Ritchie frequently weigh animals to see how they’re thriving.
We grow all our own feed – silage and hay, and some crops. After the cattle have grazed the crops down the remaining plant is mulched. We use minimal chemical fertiliser. With cropping we first grow legumes that pull in nitrogen from the atmosphere. Then we plant deep-rooted crops that store carbon in the soil. Our farm is now carbon neutral.
One innovative thing we did on the farm was to divide the big paddocks into 5 acres surrounded by rows of indigenous trees, and we’d move the cattle every two days. We found this was economical on feed and the cattle did better as they were so sheltered. All our animals pass Meat Standards Australia as we do not use hormones or nasty chemicals.
I started practicing physiotherapy in 1956. I first used to go out to people’s homes at night, even as far as the mainland. If a farmer hurt his back his wife always came into the room because I’d have to ask him to lower his trousers! The old chicory farmers all had terrible backs from their years of working in the chicory paddocks and kilns.
When Bob and I got back from our honeymoon there was a letter waiting for me from the Wonthaggi Hospital asking if I would work there as their physiotherapist, but it wasn’t possible then. I did go there for a few years 50 years later though!
I actually ran the first ante-natal clinics in the district. I worked as a physiotherapist from 1956-1996. After my children got a bit older I had clients come to the house during the day, and then I took rooms in Cowes. The local doctors would refer patients to me. I also worked in Warley Hospital as well as Warley Annexe.
1988 marked a huge change for farming in Victoria, as Joan Kirner establilshed Landcare. Phillip Island was one of the earliest groups, and quickly became a very significant group. We have always been very fortunate with the wonderful personnel who have been our co-ordinators. In conjunction with the Barb Martin Bush Bank, Landcare has completely changed the visual amenity of Phillip Island with hundreds of thousands of trees and other plants gone in the ground. Phillip Island is now part of the Bass Coast Landcare Network. It was through Landcare that I did my course. They offered regular field days and courses so that farmers were better informed and made better decisions.
I think one of the main good things about Landcare is that it brought women of the farm to be part of decision-making. Women must have felt comfortable to be involved and Landcare nourished women right across Australia.
Another thing that happened in the Landcare era was that many young people did environmental studies, and jobs began to be created for them to use their skills.
Bob and I became involved in Phillip Island Landcare straight away. I’ve been President or on the committee for many years. Some farmers were frightened at first to plant lots of trees as they thought they were losing grazing ground and couldn’t afford the cost of the fencing. The Kirner government provided money for the fencing as well as the plants. First you had to have 5 metre shelter belts, then they made it 10 metres and now the recommended width is 30 metres.
Jim McFee, a farmer at Rhyll, first suggested the wildlife corridor across Phillip Island to allow wildlife to safely move from one are to another without going on roads. The corridor is now almost fully planted out thanks to Landcare.
We have part of Saltwater Creek running through our paddock and it was very degraded. A big accounting firm in Melbourne sent staff down one day to help us plant the creek area. That was 15 years ago, and so many staff turned up we even hired a porta loo!
We also had a bad salinity problem. Landcare helped us with selective tree planting and drainage and now the problem has virtually disappeared. Whole Farm Planning was also a Landcare initiative and is now a condition of permits on farms.
Because we have been prepared to go whole-heartedly with Landcare we have won several awards. In 2004 we won the Port Phillip and Western Port Regional Landcare Award. In 2005 we won the Rural Press Landcare Victoria Award and the Victorian Landcare Sustainable Farming Award. Then in 2011 we won the National Carbon Cockie Award for Outstanding Innovation and Invention.
So what do I think is the future of farming on Phillip Island? I like to stay positive. Farming has a long history on Phillip Island. Maybe in the future it will take different forms. Perhaps special farm experiences for visitors – people would be interested to tour an operating farm. It would be a different experience. Farming adds greatly to the visitor’s experience of the landscape, so hopefully we will not have wholesale subdivision of rural land in the future.
But I do have a great concern for the future of Landcare. I can’t understand why something that has been universally accepted as being one of the most effective schemes ever, involving urban, rural and farming communities and respected by all is now so under threat. It is really facing its greatest challenge to survive.
For me, it has been a privilege to have been part of the farming history and journey of Phillip Island. Bob and I would like to think that we have left our part of Phillip Island in better shape for future generations to enjoy and cherish.